Get Out and Count: The Great Backyard Bird Count of 2018

2018 has been designated “The Year of the Bird”, and beginning today, Friday, February 16, 2018, bird lovers around the world will grab their binoculars, fill their bird feeders, update their eBird app, and look toward the skies. The 21st Annual Great Backyard Bird Count, one of the largest and longest running citizen science projects, begins today, and you can be part of this grand event of data collection.

All it takes is a mobile device (or computer) to log your results, an account at gbbc.birdcount.org , and 15 minutes of your time during the four-day event.

Can’t tell a red-tailed hawk from a red-winged black bird? That’s okay. The GBBC web site provides a handy online bird guide.  The web site also provides a guide for tricky bird IDs, including: Which Red Finch is it, Identifying Some Common Sparrows, and Identifying Doves.

I recently spent some time talking to Brian Schneider, one of the educators at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona, WI, to get some tips for first-time birders. Continue reading

Promega Travel Award Blog: An Excursion to Croatia

Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic

We invite you to travel with Bettina Bazzini-Lapin, Scientific Client Specialist, who was awarded a Promega Travel Award for sales performance and used her award to travel to Croatia and Italy. In this blog, she describes her travels.

Croatia is an Eastern European country that sits on the Adriatic Sea directly across from Italy. It has more than one thousand islands, and a third of the country is covered by forest. It is known for its beautiful Dalmatian coast line. One of the main sites for travelers to visit is the coastal city of Dubrovnik, known as the Pearl of the Adriatic. This is where my adventure began. Continue reading

FutureQuest17: Dynamic Career Exploration for Middle School Students

Isabel Agasie speaks with middle school students at FutureQuest 17.

Isabel Agasie speaks with middle school students at FutureQuest 17.

The Dane County School Consortium and the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Career and Technical Education Division collaborated to offer FutureQuest17 on December 6th at the Alliant Energy Center.  Designed as a hands-on experience for Dane County middle school students to explore areas of potential interest within a 16 career cluster, over 70 companies provided information and activities for 5300+ attendees.

BTC Institute staff members (Isabel Agasie, Amy Prevost and Karin Borgh) and volunteer Promega production scientists (Molly Nyholm and Kay Rashka) created a lively table area that focused on bioluminescence. Our space included opportunities to see an illustration of the range of careers in a biotechnology company like Promega, practice with different sizes of pipettes, view glowing recombinant luciferase, watch a scrolling slide show illustrating bioluminescence both in nature and in the lab and consider why a scientist might be interested in bioluminescence as a research tool.

Most importantly, we were able to engage in many wonderful conversations, and for this we needed all five of us since the schedule for the day included 14 periods of 20 minutes each—our estimate is that we were able to speak with ~40–50 students during each of these cycles!

As Molly noted:

The questions students asked were fantastic!!  “What is the chemical composition of this luciferin solution?”  “How much money do you make?”  “Do all glowing creatures have the same luciferase enzyme or are they different?”  “Are there any bioluminescent fish in Wisconsin?”  “Do I have to go to school for as long as you did if I want to be a scientist?”  “What pH is this solution?”  “Does this have potassium or sodium iodide?”  “Can I do an internship?”  “Can I be on the culinary team at Promega?”  “Does my glow paint have luciferase in it?”  “Do you have to take luciferase and luciferin out of those creatures or is there a way to make it in the lab?”

Kay Rashka works with students at FutureQuest17.

Kay Rashka works with students at FutureQuest17.

And, Isabel added:

It was really great to connect with students and also with teachers. Lots of fun being surrounded by kids and fantastic adults. Some kids were surprised to learn that a biotechnology company hires people in other areas besides science. They asked about diversity and were very glad to hear that there are many different kinds of jobs in biotech companies.

Some of the other presenters in the STEM area of the event that we were in close proximity to included: the City of Madison Engineering Division (where students could construct marble runs that represented water flow), Saris (where students could ride bikes set up to display a training program), Laser Tag (try it out!), very active construction companies’ hammering stations and the MG&E’s electric car. In other words, the level of activity was high, and it was wonderful to contribute to this event—we’ll be back next year!

The Battle for the Wall Outlet

student studying

Studying in the almost empty library at the beginning of the semester.

You check the clock. The time is 3:36 am and you’re barely a third of the way through the material on the 11:00 am cumulative exam. Stirring the film that has formed on top of your now-ice-cold latte, you contemplate leaving the library and heading home to a warm bed. After all, you know that the custodial staff comes around with a vacuum at 4:00 am and, like a cat, you just can’t handle the vacuum at this time of day.

You take another minute and reluctantly come to the conclusion that you should get back to work. As you pull your computer onto your lap once more, you hear the terrifying beep of a low battery signal. The battery is on 5% and you know very well there’s not a free outlet in a 2-mile radius. Without an outlet, your time in the library has come to an end.

This tiny little beep has led to my own personal defeat on multiple occasions, particularly during finals season. Continue reading

Where Science and Art Meet: The 2017 Holiday Card

The Promega Holiday Card

The Promega Holiday Card

University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate Celia Glime didn’t think she was creating a design for the 2017 Promega holiday card while doing lab work last winter for her introductory Chemistry 104 class. She was simply doing her homework.

Celia explains she was studying the progression of three chemical reactions in test tubes when she decided to take out her smartphone and snap some photos to use for her lab report. (Bonus points if you can tell from the photo what’s causing each reaction. Answers below.)

“I ended up creating an art project instead,” she says.

Celia, who at the time was considering a major in genetics and a minor in visual art, had been keeping an eye out for instances of science in real life. Her mentor on campus, Professor Ahna Skop, a geneticist and artist herself, had recently told Celia about the annual University of Wisconsin Cool Science Image Contest, sponsored by Promega. The contest aims to bring together the worlds of science and art by recognizing the technical and creative skills required to capture images or video that document science or nature.

Celia did exactly that. Continue reading

They’re Eating WHAT? Understanding Ecosystems Through Weird Meals

A few days ago, while taking an unplanned distraction break on Facebook, I came across a video of an enormous coconut crab attacking a red-footed booby. The footage was captured by a biologist studying crab behavior in the Chagos Archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean. On this trip he had already confirmed that the monstrous crustaceans snacked on large rats, but he never expected to watch one devour a full bird.
This video sent me on a research journey into other interesting meals discovered by animal researchers. Besides providing sensational headlines about what’s eating what, these studies help us understand everything from nutrient exchange to learned behavior. I’ve compiled a short list of observations and discoveries made in the past few months where researchers have used weird meals to understand complex phenomena. Warning: this might get gruesome! Continue reading

Ancient Images of Dogs Include Restraints?

This dog is wearing a leash.

You, like me, may occasionally find youself in need of a canine control device. While I’m not a fan of the dog tie out, I do walk dogs on leash—as is required by our county and city government here in Madison, WI.

If you have read Temple Grandin’s books about dogs, you might feel a tug at your heartstrings while enduring a tug on the leash. Aren’t dogs meant to run freely? Don’t we love to watch them run? Are leashes humane?

When walking dogs I feel the need to protect them, but also a desire to let them live like dogs, sniffing, marking and other behaviors that are all limited when the dog is leashed.

When a report in Science last week showed evidence that our ancient ancestors were using leashes 8,000-9,000 years ago I was: 1) surprised; and 2) felt vindicated from self-imposed dog owner guilt.

Continue reading

Some Seriously Funny Science

The other night I was playing volleyball and, during a team huddle, made a joke that the only players working hard were those with two X chromosomes (a playful jab at the male players on my team). The only response I got was a single, delayed smile along with a bunch of blank looks. That joke certainly would have produced a better reaction among my scientific colleagues, even if that simply meant a bunch of immediate groans.

I happen to think science-minded folks like myself have a terrific sense of humor, it’s just tailored to a more niche audience since a lot of the jokes we tell may not be immediately understood by the average person. While I appreciate comedy in all forms, I delight in laughing at and making jokes related to science.

Since I don’t think I am alone, I thought I would share a few events in today’s blog that really highlight the humor that can be found in the scientific community.

Continue reading

Halloween Costumes: Retro Science Style

Your Promega Connections bloggers were sitting around reminiscing the other day, “Back when I was in the lab…”. Kind of like Thanksgiving Dinner among your elderly relatives, it wasn’t long before we were one-upping each other with horror stories from our days at the bench–stories that included escape artist rats, a leaky sequencing gel apparatus, and the iconic radioactively contaminated post doc.

We decided to turn that conversation, with a lot of help from our favorite science cartoonist Ed Himelblau, into retro Halloween costumes based on our memories of things we used to do in the lab that don’t seem like such a great idea now. Enjoy…and if you have a few retro horror science costume ideas of your own you would like to add, feel free to comment.

First up: Cesium Chloride Preps.

Continue reading

Coffee and Science–A Cartoon Perspective

Although never actually on the lab bench,  coffee makers have had a prominent place in every laboratory I have worked in. It is because of my laboratory coffee experiences that I am able to drink coffee at any temperature and at any time of the day. The credit for my preference for really strong coffee (with cream, I confess)  goes to two Russian labmates who insisted on making the coffee every morning and went through two bags of beans a week (we had a very wide awake lab).

In all the labs, keeping track of whose turn it was to buy the coffee supplies was just as important as keeping track of whose turn it was to defrost the freezers. I am sorry to say we never thought of a log book because that might have saved me some frantic early morning trips to the store.

Does your lab have coffee rules or traditions? I’d love to hear what they are.